in the world of drag racing
The latest update as of August 9, 1998
Sorry to disappoint anyone who tuned in looking for more "smoke" and (Northern) "Thunder" today. No barbecued sacred cows, mangled roadside wreckage or bloodied corpses for the vultures within us to feast on. Just a few random notes and a bit of housekeeping. Please remember that this is not a full-time deal for me, there are other priorities in my life, such as getting my new alcohol dragster ready for Australia, keeping my "real" job and when I can fit it in, a bit of sleeping and eating.
My submission to NHRA on "What's Wrong with Top Alcohol" (aka: Money, Marketing and Nitro) is finally finished and on its way via cyberspace to the Rules Committee (aka: the shredder, the round file, the dumpster). I've done my bit to "save" drag racing, now it's your turn. Please send your suggestions to the NHRA Division Six Director, Chris Blair or Tech Director Jerry Valentine as soon as possible. The deadline is approximately August 25th, but the earlier you send your submissions, the more time they will have to study them before leaving for the committee meetings in Indianapolis.
My voice alone carries almost no weight, what is needed are many voices, speaking in unison, from Top Alcohol to Super Street, all contributing their suggestions and giving NHRA as much input as possible. The association cannot operate in a vacuum, they really need to know what people are thinking to be able to effect the changes so sorely needed at this time. Wild accusations, threats and intimidation will not work. What will work is reasoned, thoughtful, arguments.
Despite my rather "extreme" comments about NHRA lately, the title still has the word "Association" in it, and as such, should still (in theory) be accountable to its members. Without your input, there is no reason to be accountable though, so spend a few minutes (or a few hours) and make your views known to them. And while you're at it, let me know what you're thinking, as I can't operate in a vacuum either, I need to know what's going on in the big world outside my rather narrow view of the sport.
One suggestion that has come to me, all the way from Australia, is to investigate the possibility of forming an "alternate" association of Top Alcohol racers. The idea is not entirely new, as the U.D.R.A. (United Drag Racers Association) was formed in the late '50s and has successfully operated for nearly 40 years, in parallel, not opposition, to the NHRA. They promote a series of races for Top Alcohol Dragsters, Funny Cars and "Outlaw" Pro Stocks each year in the midwest and central U.S. and regularly outdraw Federal-Mogul Series events at a variety of large and small tracks.
The success of this concept is based on the provision of a guaranteed turnout of racers, providing an entertaining, competitive show for the spectators at a reasonable cost to the promoters. The racers are paid fairly for their efforts, the spectators are happy and the promoters make money. Everybody wins, and the atmosphere is an enjoyable counterpoint to the slick, tightly controlled and produced NHRA "circus". The UDRA stands out as a shining example of what can be achieved when racers and promoters work together, with little or no input from the sanctioning body. Now for the big question: Can this example be reproduced on a national scale?
It has been tried before, starting in 1972 with the P.R.O. (Professional Racers Organization), with their famous and earth-shaking attempt to revolutionize professional drag racing by putting on a race at Tulsa, Oklahoma in direct opposition to the NHRA U.S. Nationals. Formed by Don "Big Daddy" Garlits, and bankrolled by AHRA President Jim Tice, the association gained instant credibility among the racers.
The biggest attraction for the racers was a purse many times the size of the NHRA offerings, paying $25,000 to win in Top Fuel and Funny Car. Think about that, $25K in 1972; That's quite a few bucks today, but then: that was really BIG money. Like about $250,000 in today's terms. The racers were only too willing to support the event, and virtually every big name, and a lot of never-seen-before (and never-to-be-seen again) cars came to Tulsa, chasing the big bucks.
While the race was moderately successful in its first year (almost breaking even), the following season saw the date shifted to the week before the NHRA Big Go at Indy (due mainly to racer greed, unfortunately; "hey, if we move the date ahead a week, we can make money in Tulsa and then pick up some more at Indy"). The second outing was definitely a money-loser for the association and some rather dubious staging-lane "arrangements" showed a distinct lack of integrity by some of the participants, paving the way for the eventual demise of the association. Not helping things was the choice of Tulsa for the race site, which, while centrally located for most of the competitors, did not have a facility worthy of such an event, nor a market large enough to support it.
The last serious attempt by the PRO (now renamed PRA - Professional Racers Association) was held in 1974 (this time two weeks before Indy) at the infamous New York National Speedway, just outside the "Big Apple", New York City. If you thought my "synopsis" of S.I.R. and last weekend's Northwest Nationals was extreme, you should have read the stories generated by that race. The drag racing press spent most of the following winter recapping the "lowlights" of the event. It was without a doubt the biggest debacle in the history of drag racing! And, sadly, the last big alternative race run in "opposition" to the NHRA.
The following two seasons saw a few small PRA events run in Florida, with Garlits still vainly attempting to hold things together, but even he finally gave up in 1976, when the gate money disappeared (along with his former bookkeeper) from the last PRA race at Lakeland, Florida. By this time, the original 32-car fields had shrunk to 8-cars and were filled with mostly second-rate cars, hoping to pick up some "easy" money in a less than competitive match race quality show.
Now that we've seen the "alternatives" to NHRA, what about the rival association, IHRA ? For those not familiar with its history, I'll present a brief synopsis. Started in response to the loss of the Springnationals from his Bristol, Tennessee "Thunder Valley" track, by Larry Carrier in 1971, the IHRA has gone through alternating periods of good times and bad.
The early years of the association, saw a real marketplace "battle-royal", with NHRA, IHRA and the (now defunct) AHRA fighting over tracks, racers and spectators. In the eastern half of the United States especially, the options available to everyone brought some real competition into the drag racing "industry", and became a time of unparalleled growth throughout the 1970's.
For those racers willing and able to attempt it (financially and logistically), racing virtually every week at a major race of one of the associations was possible. To keep the racers coming to their events, and consequently putting on a show that would attract profitable numbers of spectators, the payouts offered saw regular increases each season.
As the decade neared an end, NHRA gradually began to reassert it's dominance, due to Winston sponsorship, increasing Television exposure and an increased focus on marketing; which the rival associations were unable to match. With the death of its founder, Jim Tice in 1982, the AHRA was soon on its deathbed, and after it's sale to a moving company in 1984, went down in flames shortly after, with the gate proceeds of the final race disappearing into the night, leaving the racers unpaid and bitter. Where have we heard that scenario before?
Following the demise of the AHRA, the IHRA quickly moved in and picked up many of the formers' tracks and competitors and continued to be a viable alternative to the NHRA throughout the 80's. A disastrous sale to ex-funny car racer and aspiring megalomaniac Billy Meyer in 1988, nearly ruined the association however, and was followed by several years of instability and shrinkage, in tracks, events and competitors.
Several owners and groups of owners attempted to rejuvenate the nearly moribund association, until finally Bill Bader, the very successful owner/promoter of Norwalk Raceway Park in Ohio, took control last year. With his vision and ability, and the financial stability provided by their point series title sponsor Snap-On Tools, the IHRA looks firmly on the road to growth and recovery of its former market share.
While still largely concentrated in the Eastern and Southeastern U.S., the IHRA is gradually expanding its horizons, and currently sanctions tracks as far afield as Alaska and Ontario and Quebec provinces in Canada. It's greatest strength at present, is a "show" much different from that offered by NHRA. Pro Mod, Top Dragster, Top Sportsman , and Unlimited Pro Stocks provide a unique and entertaining spectacle for the spectators and a place to race for many cars "orphaned" by NHRA's vision of drag racing. While not (currently) offering Nitro Funny Cars or Top Alcohol Dragsters, the events have proven successful without them. With more sponsorship, more media coverage and some larger venues, it is only a matter of time until the alcohol dragsters and funny cars are reinstated by IHRA.
There is no word yet on major expansion plans for the association, but with nearly 60 facilities on their roster already, and enquiries coming from many areas west of the Mississippi, the prospect of IHRA becoming a truly "international" sanctioning body look very good indeed. True competition for the NHRA may once again become a reality. To many disenchanted and (possibly soon-to-be) disenfranchised racers, this couldn't come soon enough.
Now back to the big question; do we really need another sanctioning body/racer association? My answer is. . . YES, we most certainly do, because, despite having a choice between NHRA and IHRA, both organizations are businesses, not racers' associations, (despite their titles). There is a real need for organizations of racers, promoting and selling their "shows", independent of the sanctioning bodies. I've already mentioned the UDRA, but there are literally dozens of smaller racer-organized bodies in the U.S. and Canada.
The CIFCA (California Injected Funny Car Association), Hot Rods from Hell (a group of supercharged "outlaws" in the Midwest), the Canada West Doorslammers Association, the West Coast Pro Mod Association and many, many others. Each one of these groups has been successful in promoting the interests of their members, each has created its own niche in the sport and have kept many racers from leaving the sport due to a lack of racing opportunities or inadequate returns on their investments.
But are we ready for yet another association, this one comprised of Top Alcohol Dragsters and Funny Cars, on a national basis ? To put such a diverse group together would be a herculean task, far beyond what almost anyone would be able or willing to attempt. And despite my often megalomaniacal tendencies, the sport is definitely not ready for the . . . "Wilson Hot Rod Association ". Trust me, I'd make a lousy president (aka dictator). On a bad day I could make Adolf Hitler look like a Liberal!
So who would be willing to take on the job of uniting several hundred
alcohol racers into an association with real credibility, real clout and the
ability to confront NHRA with a package of much-needed reforms? Any takers
out there? . . . I thought not. Don't despair though, as once this seed of
an idea is germinated, it will grow. All we need is a little fuel to start
the combustion process. Stay tuned in the coming months, as I attempt to do
my (very) small part in starting the process. I'll close for now with this
parting thought; it's an old cliche, but it's still valid today: